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In today's newsletter: how tax reform, health care, and Trump's feud with a Gold Star widow are connected; the Senate continues consideration of disaster aid; Russia probe latest + more
Deep Dive: Trump Continues to Add Headaches for Congressional Republicans
Both chambers of Congress met on Monday for the first time in two weeks, as the goal of passing a historic overhaul of the tax code by year's end finally came into focus for Republicans. GOP lawmakers would like nothing more than to keep the focus in Washington on tax reform, their top priority for 2017 since the failure of Obamacare repeal. President Donald Trump had something else in mind.
Trump woke up on Monday focused instead on his feud with Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, pushing the controversy over his call with Johnson into its second week. In an interview Monday on "Good Morning America," Johnson gave her account of the President's sympathy call about her slain husband, which she said made her "very, very upset and hurt" and "made me cry because I was very angry at the tone of his voice." Johnson confirmed that Trump told her that her husband "knew what he signed up for" and that Trump "couldn't remember my husand's name."
Her account matched with that of Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL), who was attacked by the White House after telling reporters about the call last week. Trump called Wilson "wacky" in a tweet over the weekend; he previously said that her description of the call was "totally fabricated."
The President also took to Twitter on Monday, this time to dispute the Gold Star widow directly: "I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!"
The New York Times reported on Monday that "White House officials [have] conceded privately that they had to find a way to move beyond the episode," even as Trump prolonged it by contradicting Johnson on Twitter. But, as the Washington Post points out, Trump's actions in the controversy have followed a clearly-defined playbook for winning such back-and-forths: "Make it a fight, use controversy to elevate the message and never apologize."
Yet, a Trump apology (unlikely to ever come) would likely be welcome to Republicans in Congress. The Post's Robert Costa told MSNBC on Monday that the episode has sparked "alarm across the Republican Party," adding that GOP officials are "asking the White House to stop engaging with Congresswoman Wilson...as the party tries to move forward on tax reform."
Trump's Twitter feed has also become a source of difficulty for congressional Republicans when it comes to policy, as he inserted himself into the tax reform debate on Monday to announce that the GOP plan will include "NO change to your 401(k)," shooting down a provision that had been reportedly discussed by House Republicans.
Many of Trump's promises, on the corporate tax rate, the number of tax brackets, and now on 401(k) plans, have caused headaches for GOP tax negotiators, according to the Washington Post. The New York Times echoed this narrative, reporting that as challenging as enacting tax reform under any President would be, Trump "is making it harder." The Times detailed "a growing fear among Republicans and business lobbyists that Mr. Trump's bully-pulpit whims could undermine the party's best chance to pass the most sweeping rewrite of the tax code in decades."
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA) told the Times that congressional Republicans "have to worry about [Trump shifting positions," adding that the President "can shift on a dime, and has many unformed policy positions." Meanwhile, another Washington Post story on Monday reported that "lawmakers in both parties increasingly consider him an untrustworthy, chronically inconsistent and easily distracted negotiator."
Both outlets cited Trump's frequently changing stances throughout the health care debate as a prime example of the frustration he has caused Republicans attempting to achieve top priorities. After months of making Obamacare repeal more difficult, he could now block efforts to fix the health care law. A bipartisan deal to reform Obamacare struck by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA) has support from at least 60 senators, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said on CNN over the weekend that he was waiting for Trump's go-ahead before bringing the bill to a vote.
According to Politico, many Republican senators would like "clarity" from the White House on the issue, after Trump has both praised and rejected the Alexander-Murray compromise. "It's safe to say the president's been unclear," Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) said. "The White House has the ball right now," Alexander told reporters. Meanwhile, when asked about the legislation, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) said he's "with the President."
"But asked to clarify where the president is, the GOP's No. 2 leader threw his hands up and disappeared into the Senate chamber," Politico said.
President Trump will seek to clear up questions over his stance on tax reform, health care, and other issues today as he travels to the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue to attend the weekly Senate Republican policy lunch. Trump will aim to cement support among the caucus, despite sparring in the past with Sens. McConnell, John McCain (R-AZ), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Bob Corker (R-TN), and others who will be in the room. "The White House wants the attention to be on tax reform," CNN reports, "but Trump's unpredictability and a tense environment could make for a hold-your-breath moment."
And while many senators have many concerns they hope Trump will address at the lunch today, Corker dismissed the event on Monday. "Tomorrow's a photo-op: nothing more, nothing less," the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman told NBC, adding: "It's going to be up and down for the next three years and...that's just the way it's going to be."
- Niger Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered new information on the Niger ambush that cost four soldiers (including La David Johnson) their lives. (CNN)
- The Wall A look at the eight prototypes for the President's proposed wall along the Mexican border (NBC)
- Polarization increases A new poll shows only about one-third of Americans have a "mix of conservative and liberal positions," down from nearly one-half in 2004. (Pew)
- History lesson Steve Bannon's challenges to Republican senators echoes a similar attempt by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938. (NYT)
- Another Gold Star controversy resolved... Trump sends personal check for $25,000 to the grieving father of a fallen soldier after promising it in June. (WTVD)
Tweet of the Day
The President's Day
In the morning, President Donald Trump receives his daily intelligence briefing. Trump will then participate in an awards ceremony marking National Minority Enterprise Development Week, which recognizes minority-owned businesses. In the afternoon, the President participates in a swearing-in ceremony for Callista Gingrich, the wife of former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who was confirmed as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See last week. Later in the afternoon, Trump participates in the Senate Republican Conference's weekly policy lunch at the U.S. Capitol.
Today in Congress
The Senate: The upper chamber is expected to vote today on final approval of the House-passed $36.5 billion disaster aid bill, which provides relief to areas affected by recent hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. The Senate advanced the legislation in a 79-16 vote on Monday, with all of the "nays" coming from Republicans. Many conservatives oppose the measure's $16 billion in debt relief to the National Flood Insurance Program, calling for reforms to the program, as opposed to a "bailout." The NFIP "depleted its borrowing authority" late last month, according to Politico.
The Senate may also vote today on a bill overturning the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's arbitration rule, which "makes it easier for consumers to bring class-action lawsuits against financial companies by banning arbitration requirements written in the fine print of financial-services contracts," according to the Wall Street Journal.
The House: The lower chamber is scheduled to vote on four bills today. Here they are, plus their official summaries:
- the Strengthening Cybersecurity Information Sharing and Coordination in Our Ports Act, "to enhance cybersecurity information sharing and coordination at ports in the United States";
- the Family Office Technical Correction Act, "to clarify that family offices and family clients are accredited investors";
- the Impeding North Korea’s Access to Finance Act, "to require the Secretary of the Treasury to place conditions on certain accounts at United States financial institutions with respect to North Korea"; and
- the Stop Settlement Slush Funds Act, "to limit donations made pursuant to settlement agreements to which the United States is a party".
The Russia probe: The House Intelligence Committee will meet with Trump campaign digital director Brad Parscale and Trump's personal attorney Michael Cohen in separate interviews behind closed doors today as the panel continues its probe of Russia's interference in the U.S election.